These are some of my favorite lessons from Ryan Holiday’s latest book, Stillness is the Key. This is only a brief summary of what they mean to me and how I emulate them in my own life. I hope this encourages you to pick up the book yourself, as I would highly recommend you to do so.
Take time off — Whenever you feel stuck, or your work is growing stale, or if that business meeting is getting heated to no avail — Time out. Laugh it off. Do something fun. Because you not only get to clear your mind off from all the stress, but your subconscious mind will do its work, letting your best ideas come to you. It’s really cool to think about how John F. Kennedy credited his florist for her contributions after the Cuban Missile Crisis was averted, because he would regularly spend time in the White House garden when discussions were tense. Here are some of my “time off” things to do — Go for a run, go for a morning walk, spend time around nature, play Red Dead Redemption II on my Ps4, play with my 4 year old niece and my baby nephew as much as I can whenever they’re around, read, watch Spongebob — It doesn’t actually have to be something you’d call “productive” — As long as you’re slowing your mind down.
Be fully present — “Taking the time to smell the flowers” is a cliché thing to say, but because it’s cliché — We often take it for granted. Always remind yourself that your worries, your anxieties, your preoccupations will never go away — Because after one thing we worry about has passed, we just find some other worry to replace it, to be preoccupied about. Then you get old, and you wonder where all that time has flown off to, you wonder how you missed out on all the precious moments when you could’ve been your best, and you die — Don’t be that person. Instead, recognize that happiness is right now, not to be achieved at some far end of a rainbow. Trust that you don’t have to worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will take care of itself. This could be a hard thing to do, but as Ryan wrote, “That’s the nice thing about the present. It keeps showing up to give you a second chance.”
Garbage in, garbage out — Following Ryan’s advice in a recent interview he did, I started using an analog alarm clock so that I could put my phone elsewhere while I sleep at night and spend the first hour of my morning without checking it. There’s a term that political scientists call the “CNN Effect”, where “breathless, twenty-four-hour media coverage makes it considerably harder for politicians and CEOs to be anything but reactive.” — And now, with social media and push notifications, it’s even harder for us to think and act clearly, or achieve piece of mind as we drown in information. So put your phone away, spend less time online, read more books. And if you’re afraid of missing out, here’s a quote from Epictetus : “If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.”
Enjoy the process — There’s this great Zen saying that tells us, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” — Meaning that your focus must always be on the process. Have you ever experienced a situation where the harder you try to sleep, the harder it actually is to actually fall asleep? This is what psychologists call “hyperintention” — The more you want something, the more difficult it can be to achieve it. The harder you try, the more you just end up making things worse. Your desire to dictate the process of everything is what holds you back from mastery, from achieving great things. Instead, if you just relax, breathe, focus on the individual steps, and go through the process, things become a lot easier and you achieve more than you had hoped for. As Ryan says in the book, “We’ll think better if we aren’t thinking so hard.”
Write in your journal — “How noble and good everyone could be,” Anne Frank wrote in her journal, “if at the end of the day they were to review their own behavior and weigh up the rights and wrongs. They would automatically try to do better at the start of each new day, and after a while, would certainly accomplish a great deal.” Keeping a journal is one of the most recommended strategies out there to help you achieve stillness, and plenty of the most successful people we know are no strangers to this practice. Why is it so effective? — Because by putting your unstill thoughts onto paper, you can carry on with your day feeling still, and in turn, think and act well. It’s also a great tool for self-reflection too, as the act of writing your thoughts down eases you to see things more clearly. Quoting Anne Frank again, “Paper has more patience than people.”
Read, read, read — Leo Tolstoy once said, “I cannot understand how some people can live without communicating with the wisest people who ever lived on Earth.” — And that is to say, people who don’t read have no advantage over those who do read. You know, a cool thing about being human is that there’s always a huge chance that the problems we’re facing right now aren’t unique — The answers to our problems are literally out there, written by the smartest people in the world, based on their own experiences and overwhelming amounts of research, so that we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes. (Though I’m not saying that there aren’t stupid people who write bad books and give bad advice — So, look for good book recommendations to sift through the junk!) I try my best to treat reading as work, and therefore read at least one book per week, though on average I would read three per week. Yep, there is a possibility of reading too much, and that isn’t healthy either. So whenever I feel saturated from reading books back-to-back, or when I catch myself just underlining and scribbling in them on autopilot, without thinking much, I would be sure to give myself a break — Usually a week where I don’t do any reading.
Realize that you have enough — “When you realize there is nothing lacking, said Lao Tzu, “the whole world belongs to you.” It’s the saddest thing in the world to see a person who has enormous wealth, a loving family, a great career, to feel like he still doesn’t have enough — While another person somewhere could only wish to have the same things. Enough comes from the inside, from appreciating what we already have, and what we’ve always had — If enough doesn’t exist in your life, life will be hell. We know that, but still, it’s so hard to keep it in mind.
In a hadith narrated by Zayd ibn Thabit, The Propher (pbuh) said, “Whoever makes the world his most important matter, Allah will confound his affairs and make poverty appear before his eyes and he will not get anything from the world but what has been decreed for him. Whoever makes the Hereafter his most important matter, Allah will settle his affairs and make him content in his heart and the world will come to him although he does not want it.”
Find love and companionship — Borrowing a passage from the book,
The writer Philip Roth spoke proudly late in life about living alone and being responsible or committed to nothing but his own needs. He once told an interviewer that his lifestyle meant he could be always on call for his work, never having to wait for or on anyone but himself. “I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room,” he said. “And I’m the emergency.”
That may be just about the saddest thing a person has ever said without realizing it.
Life without relationships, focused only on one’s own accomplishments is ultimately empty. Stillness, happiness, and success are only meaningful when shared. As challenging as relationships can be, to quote Ryan, “We all need someone who understands us better than we understand ourselves, if only to keep us honest.” He also said, “Being close to and connecting with other people challenges every facet of our soul…Like all good education, it is not easy. Not easy at all. It’s been said that the word ‘love’ is spelled T-I-M-E. It is also spelled W-O-R-K and S-A-C-R-I-F-I-C-E and D-I-F-F-I-C-U-L-T-Y, C-O-M-M-I-T-M-E-N-T, and occasionally M-A-D-N-E-S-S. But it is always punctuated by R-E-W-A-R-D. Even ones that end.”
Ryan wrote that “Fyodor Dostoyevsky once described his wife, Anna, as a rock on which he could lean and rest, a wall that would not let him fall and protected him from the cold. There is no better description of love, between spouses or friends or parent and child, than that.”
Don’t let the things you own, own you — Epictetus wrote in his Enchiridion that one should always remind himself about the ephemeral nature of things in this life. He gave a metaphor of owning a ceramic cup — You should remember that no matter how much you’re fond of it, it’s still a cup, and that it could break — So if and when it does break, you don’t break too. It’s a beautiful thing to love people and things, but we must always try our best to not attach ourselves to them, as they aren’t in our control. At any moment, they could be taken away from us. If we are nothing without them, then perhaps it’s time to reevaluate who we are. It’s like that line in Fight Club : “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your khakis.”
Have a hobby — Josef Pieper wrote that “the ability to be ‘at leisure’ is one of the basic powers of the human soul.” It’s important to realize that leisure really doesn’t mean doing nothing. Leisure is a physical state, a physical action that replenishes us, that strengthens our soul. It’s not something you do for money, or to impress others — It’s something that you do for you, simply because you find peace and presence in it. It’s something unrelated to your career, maybe it’s something you don’t even know much about — And it grants you the humility of being mediocre at a skill you’re just starting out on, but having the will and confidence to trust the process. Having a hobby can tremendously benefit your work, if not other areas in your life as well. The swordsman Musashi, whose work was of a violently physical nature, took up painting as he learned that one form of art enriched the other — A beautiful pairing of contrasts — Strength and gentleness, stillness and aggression. Einstein loved to play the violin. Hemingway loved to box (among many other things he also did). Whatever your hobby may be, don’t abandon it — Find stillness in it.